One of the most vivid memories of my teen years spent visiting L.A. revival theaters is of seeing FIVE CAME BACK (1939) in an RKO series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
I've put off revisiting the film in the decades since, in part because I found the movie so memorably disturbing and in part because I felt that nothing could compare with the original experience. The film truly deserves its reputation as one of the best "B" pictures ever made.
The cast finally lured me to return to the movie. It's rather interesting to think that at the time I first saw the film, only Lucille Ball was a "name" for me, although I would have known faces such as C. Aubrey Smith from other movies. Now I see the film as having a "B" movie all-star cast: Chester Morris, Wendy Barrie, and Kent Taylor all in the same movie, not to mention Allen Jenkins. It's a fantastic lineup.
Most of the passengers pitch in and get along; between supplies on the ship and what's found in the jungle there's enough food for survival.
Ball's tough "hard luck" dame develops a yen for Morris, who is haunted by his wife's death; meanwhile Barrie realizes her fiance (Patric Knowles) is an unreliable drunkard and transfers her affections to copilot Taylor.
An anarchist, Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), on his way to execution unexpectedly bonds with a professor (Smith) and his wife (Elisabeth Risdon). Crimp (John Carradine), the man transporting Vasquez, proves to be far less helpful than his prisoner.
The engine is repaired, but the plane is in precarious shape and the pilots realize it will only be able to hold four adults and little Tommy (Casey Johnson). Those who stay behind are likely to meet a bad end, as a tribe of headhunters is on the warpath.
Countless movies were filmed in soundstage jungles where the viewer is always very much aware of the artificiality, but that's not the case with FIVE CAME BACK. The acting and pacing are so good, and the story so compelling, that the viewer willingly suspends disbelief, totally caught up in the plight of the characters and wondering who will make it onto the plane. The ending is unforgettable.
There's an impressive amount of story and character motivation packed into 75 minutes, as new relationships are forged and people reveal their true selves. Modern filmmakers in this era of bloated running times would do well to study what can be accomplished in a little over an hour's time. A montage showing how the characters pitch in and relate to one another is one of the best I've ever seen, condensing a great deal of plot development into a very short time frame.
Much credit goes to director John Farrow, who balances emotional developments with a fast pace; this is one of his best films. Farrow actually remade the film near the end of his career, as BACK FROM ETERNITY (1956) starring Robert Ryan. It's interesting to note that the remake's running time was expanded to 100 minutes.
The fine screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo, Nathanael West, and Jerome Cady, based on a story by Richard Carroll. The film's black and white cinematography was by Nicholas Musuraca and the score by longtime RKO composer Roy Webb.
FIVE CAME BACK had a VHS release in the excellent RKO Collection series, but it has never had a DVD release. Hopefully at some point it will be released by the Warner Archive.
Fortunately for those who've not yet seen it, FIVE CAME BACK will air on Turner Classic Movies on October 5, 2014.
The trailer is on the TCM site.
For another take on this terrifically entertaining film, please visit Caftan Woman.